A quick disclaimer: this post is written entirely from the perspective of a synthetic chemist. I don’t know much about the attitudes of analytical, environmental, computational or other chemists towards their work — but I would be very interested in finding out. Check in with me in the comments!
I have noticed during my years of studying chemistry that there is an almost universal tendency between chemists to anthropomorphise chemistry. One particular example I run into often is in relation to figuring out how and why a reaction works. Synthetic chemists are concerned with reaction mechanisms: exactly what happens in a reaction to transform the starting material into the product. Reaction mechanisms usually involve several steps, and several different molecules, from the starting materials to solvents and intermediates, which are somewhere between the starting material and the product. While figuring out mechanisms with colleagues, I’ve heard chemists referring to molecules as “this guy,” as in “this guy then goes on to do that, while this guy just sits around watching the whole thing happening.” In my line of work, I’ve also heard this expression when colleagues are figuring out relationships between crystal structures. “This guy” then refers to particular crystal structure. The fascinating thing about this expression is that if it were only about simplifying communication for office chatter, we could easily have adopted a slang expression like “this thing” or variant thereof. Instead, we use a very humanising term, which implies identity and agency.
There is a second example of anthropomorphising chemicals that I personally am guilty of. I work in coordination chemistry, which involves organic molecules (ligands) that we try to get to bond with metal ions. Sometimes the metal ions and ligands behave in predictable ways, but sometimes they do something entirely baffling or nothing at all. In the latter two cases, I find myself talking about how the metal ion “wants” to do something in particular — that it “likes” the solvent more than the ligand, or just “doesn’t want to” bond to two different things at once. Of course, it is entirely impossible for an atom to want to do anything in the way we as humans want to, so the expression is entirely inaccurate — and we know that. So why do we do it?
I think the beginning to the answer lies in that chemistry is even now primarily an experimental science. In crystallography, for example, it has been shown that it is still very difficult for computers to predict the intricacies of crystal structures. Growing crystals, collecting data and then solving the structure is the only reliable way to go. I’m not trying to dismiss computational chemistry — but I would think that even computational chemists agree that a combination of experimental and computational chemistry produces the most meaningful results for now.
As an experimental science, then, the best (or only) way to learn chemistry is by doing it. That can seem like a baffling statement, as though I’m claiming that mixing things willy-nilly will magically transfer in-depth knowledge of chemistry into your brain. This is sadly not possible. What I mean with learning chemistry through practice is that the more practical chemistry you do, the better you become at it. To be a successful chemist, you do have to know how the theory works so that you can intelligently select your targets, building blocks and conditions. But when it’s about a particular system that you are working on and refining, or even a particular technique, working with it over a period of time begins to give you a sense of what will and won’t work. Tangible knowledge that you can write down or impart on the next student or researcher coming to work in your field is almost never the first result of experimentation. The first result is just an abstract feeling which makes you chase one path and abandon others.
Perhaps you can see the connection forming here. The relationship between an experimental chemist and their chemistry can be sort of like a relationship between people: based strongly on intuition and instinct. I am sure many of us have met a person we have either liked or disliked for a reason that isn’t entirely obvious to us from the get-go. That is the same sort of level of feeling I’m talking about in the realm of chemistry. I guess it’s no wonder, then, that many of us resort to anthropomorphising terms when describing our chemistry, when human interaction is the realm we’re used to when dealing on that cognitive level.
There is a pitfall here: with anthropomorphising your work, you risk developing affection for it. The problem with that is the possible development of confirmation bias — you want your chemistry to work out, so you are more likely to interpret ambiguous data as a success rather than a failure. That is a whole can of ethics-related worms, though, and in the interest of brevity, I’ll leave it for another time.
My thoughts on the tendency to anthropomorphise aspects of our work is that it reflects the way chemists may think about chemistry. Although we are scientists who require hard data to support our claims, I feel that is rarely our first point of call in practical chemistry. The instinct comes first, and the data to support or debunk it comes after — which then feeds back into the subconscious knowledge of your work.
If you have feelings about this blog post, you can reach me in the comments, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, where I tweet as @Lady_Beaker.